Prendergast Library Makes A Tough Choice

In a perfect world, the James Prendergast Library Association wouldn’t be selling art purchased with money from Mary Prendergast’s will.

The world is flawed, however, and the Association finds itself doing just that as board members scramble to raise money to provide the programs and services expected of the library. Foundations can’t be counted on forever and, as anyone who follows Jamestown’s budget process each year well knows, the library is unlikely to see an increase in its funding from city taxpayers. The library often has to plea with City Council members not to cut the library’s funding.

Money is tighter and tighter and expenses continue to mount. It is a vicious cycle that forces nonprofits to find new ways to pay for their work or resort to cutting staff, programs and the library’s hours. Give credit to library board members who have, this year, already cut $90,000 in spending to whittle a $180,000 shortfall in its budget to $90,000. The library is looking at another $180,000 hole in its budget for 2016 that still must be filled.

One way the library can do so is by selling some of the artwork purchased with money left behind by Mrs. Prendergast upon her passing in 1890. The paintings were a gift to the library that were never seen by Mrs. Prendergast. Most of them haven’t been seen publicly in years and have no connection to Jamestown or Chautauqua County, though library officials note any paintings with local significance will not be sold.

Selling the paintings will help build the library’s endowment so the endowment can provide a greater percentage of the library’s revenue. Selling the paintings while there is still value also preserves examples of late 19th century European and American painters that otherwise are likely to sit in a closet, stored in an environment unfriendly to oil paintings, degrading until there is nothing left of them except for the frames. There is less of a case to be made for keeping the paintings. Proper display will cost the library money it doesn’t have to spend and space that is likely better used serving its core mission. Proper storage is, again, money and space the library doesn’t have.

No one on the Prendergast Library board took their volunteer position with a sinister plan to dismantle the library’s art collection. This decision is made with deference to Mrs. Prendergast’s wishes – confirmed in a legal opinion from Judge Steven Cass – and with respect to pieces of art that have a local connection. And, handled correctly, the library board is putting the Prendergast Library on a financial path that will allow the library to continue fulfilling its mission long into the future.

Library board members swallowed a bitter pill when they made the decision to begin the process to sell pieces of the library’s art collection. They should be commended for making a difficult decision that will, in the end, benefit the library’s users for years to come.